A science fiction short about a disgruntled poet tasked with making a barren world on the outer edge of civilization appeal to the intergalactic tourist.
Nicholas P. Oakley
Carek Tullor tugged at his wispy beard and heaved out a sigh. The latest Theok Prime brochure was spread out in all of its beautiful glory on the table in front of him. Tullor’s eyes danced across the text, flitting between the pictures of luxury beach resorts and curving hotel starscrapers and, on the other page, pristine ski slopes and placid lakes framed by picturesque mountain ranges. The holoslides activated when he brought his hands closer. With a despondent heave, he shoved the colorful tourist brochure to the floor.
Tullor had a good view from the shack masquerading as his office out over Gerky9. The city, like the planet, was uniformly, monumentally, dull. However flowery Tullor’s language, however intriguing or exciting he tried to make Gerky9 sound in his copy, any Galactic tourist would only have to see a picture of the barren planet to be put off for life.
The place was a dump. Flat and arid around the equator, barely habitable around the poles. There was just one city, and it could barely be called that. The buildings were rundown, cracked, lifeless. None of its few hundred thousand permanent residents had ever done anything special. No sector-renowned chefs, no great artists or musicians. There was no distinctive feature of Gerky9 at all, in fact; no quirks of any kind. There were no interesting geographical features, no history, no archaeology, barely any culture. No, Gerky9 was nothing more than a desolate planet way out on the edge of the sector, on the fringes of the frontier, with just a handful of squat hotels and a spaceport out in the desert that was falling apart. Nobody came to Gerky9 by choice, and the drab architecture and antique infrastructure reflected the planet’s fortunes.
Tullor’s wristband beeped, interrupting his mournful stare. He flicked his hand to answer, and the face that appeared on his Ocular made his stomach turn. Barely ten o’clock, and he was already being hounded.
“Tullor, where are we with the campaign?” said his boss, Kreak, without preamble.
“I’m still working on it, sir.”
“You’ve been at it for weeks, boy. Did you get those brochures I sent you?”
Tullor looked at the stacked pile of professionally produced manuals in his in-tray, then at the Theok Prime brochure glistening at him from the floor.
“Yes, sir. They were very… inspiring.”
“Inspiring? Good, good,” said Kreak. “Listen, Tullor. You’re a nice enough kid. I know after that ugly business with the Mayor’s wife… well, that doesn’t matter now. What does matter, Tullor, is that we have something for the Board soon, right? Don’t make me look a fool in front of them.”
“Of course no sir. It’s just…”
Kreak’s brow darkened. “I know that Gerky9 isn’t quite as well endowed as its neigbors,” he said. “We’re not asking for miracles, Tullor. The Board just wants a small increase in tourism revenue, in spaceport arrivals. Nothing someone of your abilities can’t handle. I read one of your poems, you know. That one about the black hole. It was really quite interesting. But we’re not even after anything that… that… cerebral. And I just know you can give us something to work with. All you need is the right spark, the right angle, and we can go from there. Otherwise the Board, well, the Board…” Kreak drifted off, and an uncomfortable silence yawned for a few seconds. “Do you understand me, Tullor?” he asked eventually.
“I was thinking, actually, that maybe you should get out of the office for a while. You know, see the sights. See what Gerky9 really has to offer.”
“I’m not sure that’s really nece—”
“Oh, but I insist. It’ll look like you’ve taken the initiative, too, when you report to the Board.”
“That’s right. So take the rest of the day off. Galaxy, have the rest of the week off. But when you come back I need your pitch, Tullor. Understand?”
“Yes sir. Thank you sir.”
“Very good,” said Kreak, and cut the connection with a final nod.
Tullor’s head dropped to his hands and he released a long nasal groan.
Even though the miserable, distant sun was barely up, Jacquils was open. Tullor found himself an empty table, took out his cigarettes and tattered notebook, and looked with despair at the cryptic, nonsensical scribbles the pages contained. Usually the murky atmosphere and the depressing clientele of the bar, mostly made up of miners and farmers who liked Jacquils’ cheap gin, was conducive to calling back his muse, if only from the realization that he might end up like Jacquils’ regulars, in a smock with mud caked on his face, if he didn’t start producing, and fast.
Today, though, the Jacquils was almost empty, and his muse wasn’t forthcoming, however many drinks he knocked back in her honor. As he flicked through his notebook, his fingers pinching at the corners of the pages as if in distaste, an unlit cigarette hanging loosely at the edge of his mouth, Tullor knew that his once-promising career was almost certainly over. He’d never recovered from fooling around with the Mayor’s wife — he was lucky that it had been the wife’s turn that traumatic day, and not the daughter’s — and now, shoved out into the Tourist Board, staffed by all the dregs and dim-witted non-entities of the entire Bureau, it was beyond hopeless. And on Gerky9, if you weren’t in the Bureau, you were down the mines, on the algae farms, or destroying your liver in a bar like Jacquils.
Tullor put his pen down, lit his cigarette, and wiped his brow. If only he hadn’t frittered all that money away on lovers he might have been able to afford a berth on one of the irregular interstellar freighters…
Tullor’s depression was interrupted by the arrival of his sister, Vollio. Even her smiling eyes weren’t enough to penetrate Tullor’s funk, though, and he just stared back at her blankly.
“Work still bad?” she asked, replacing his empty glass with a full one.
Tullor nodded. Vollio lingered over the table for a moment, then glanced around at the thin morning crowd. With a concealed sigh, she put down her tray and took the seat next to her brother.
“What you got so far?” she asked, glad to be off her feet for the first time in hours. She’d been waiting tables in Jacquils since the night before, and her feet were uncomfortably swollen.
“Nothing. Fragments. Rubbish.” Tullor gestured vaguely to the scrawls in his notebook. “I’m out if I can’t come up with something by next week.”
“Well, what’s your best idea so far? Maybe I can help.”
Tullor frowned, but Vollio gave him a look.
“Okay,” he said, pulling himself together. “I was thinking, Everyworld, Milky Way.”
“That’s your pitch?” asked Vollio slowly.
“Everyworld…” Vollio said, frowning. “Tullor. That’s terrible.”
Tullor’s shoulders managed to slump even further. “I know,” he said miserably.
“Who is it Kreak wants you to attract this week?”
Vollio laughed. “If anyone brought me here on my honeymoon…” she trailed off, seeing Tullor’s face. “Okay, listen. Ignore Kreak. He’s thinking too small. Imagine a couple comes here on their honeymoon, to Gerky9 of all the places in the galaxy, and they end up in this dive. How much you think they’ll pay for a drink?”
“I dunno.” Tullor said, looking around Jacquils’ unappetizing interior. An algae farmer missing several front teeth caught his eye and leered at him, and he looked away quickly. “Not much.”
“Right. You can put some sugar on it, put a little umbrella in it, but you’re probably only gonna get maybe double what these stiffs pay, and that’s if they don’t walk straight out the door first.”
“So what’s your point?”
“You want the guy who’ll pay ten times what it’s worth, and won’t pull a face when he tastes how watered down it is. Because that’s what he expects.”
Tullor frowned, trying to follow his sister’s train of thought. “And who’s that?” he asked.
“The guy who can’t get it anywhere else, that’s who.”
Tullor was slow to catch on. Vollio leaned in and whispered into her brother’s ear.
“No way, Vollio. Are you crazy? Kreak’ll never go for that. Not in a million years.”
Vollio smiled, rubbing at a stain on the table with her sleeve. “No, probably not. But you’re looking at it all wrong. However much sugar you put on Gerky9, you’re not going to get people coming here because they want to. So you make it that they have to. The trick is to get them without the Bureau catching on. You just gotta be smart about it. Like that thing you use in your poems, when you say one thing and mean another.”
“Yeah. So for example, you say that the Bureau is small but open-minded.”
“Yeah. And that they respect a person’s privacy, and value the entrepreneurial spirit. You understand? It’s like a code. You really mean that they don’t care who you are or were or what you did. The same thing about visas and custom checks and cargo inspections. You say streamlined, when you really mean they won’t look twice, or at least not for a price. Which we both know is already half-true. You’re saying one thing, meaning another.”
“That’s not a metaphor. That’s a lie.”
Vollio shrugged. “Same difference.”
Tullor didn’t argue the point. “But outlaws, Vollio?” he said quietly, shaking his head.
Vollio laughed, but Tullor could tell from her eyes that she was serious. “Why not?” she said. “You won’t get the big time players, of course. Probably just the mid-level criminals. But think about it. You’ve got to sell Gerky9 to the galaxy. So play to our strengths. We’re on the way to both Feydor and Hiopp, if you take the scenic route. Then after that it’s all frontier. A good place for the recently escaped or newly endowed to lay low for a while, or as a stopover before they move on to one of the bigger outlaw planets like Hiopp, if they’ve done something really bad. But most of them won’t raise a blip on GalPol’s radar, and besides, the nearest GalPol office is what? Ten, twenty systems over? They won’t bother coming all the way out here after the kind of people you’ll bring in. And those guys, Tullor, those guys will put a lot of money into the Bureau’s hands. By the time the Bureau realize what’s up they won’t even care, their pockets will be so full. You just gotta word it right. Make sure everyone reads what they want to read into it. You should be pretty good at that, no? All that poetry you scribble must be worth something.”
Vollio smiled at Tullor’s stunned silence, watching the cogs in his mind working, and took a long sip from his watered-down drink.
The next day, Tullor made the pitch. To his astonishment, it worked. Kreak thought he’d be getting a bunch of traveling salesmen and prospectors filling up his hotels and paying the small landing and visa fees, and no-one up the food chain questioned it. The art department even found a nice holo of the port and one of the hotels and touched them up, and if Tullor hadn’t known they’d been taken a hundred years before he might even have been impressed.
And soon enough, just like Vollio had said, the bars got busier and the docking shards out at the spaceport filled up with exactly the kind of people who appreciated Gerky9’s unique attributes. People who liked their privacy, their cargoholds intact and unchecked, people who had plenty of ready cash to hand, and liked to spend it in dingy bars and rundown hotels where no-one looked a second time at anyone, on a quiet planet in the middle of nowhere.
Tullor was off the hook, and soon on his way back up the Bureau’s slippery ladder. Vollio, for her part, had seen the cards on the table and, with a big loan, set up her own bar, Treasure, catering specifically to Gerky9’s new visitors. Business was so good that she owned the place outright within six months, around the same time the Bureau renamed the planet Haven and dropped all pretense at carrying out visa checks. By that time, Tullor was firmly back in the Mayor’s good books, as well as his bed, where, between the athletics, he managed to pen some of his best poetry.